A Technical Calling

Despite starting off in foodservice, c-store technology found its way into the heart of this year's Top Tech Executive Jim Xenos and never left

Graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in business management, Jim Xenos entered the convenience store business via foodservice. Taking a job at Pilot Travel Centers, he ran the restaurant services portion of the business, but given his operations background, he branched out into other areas. And when he entered the information technology (IT) arena, he found a home.

"My early career years were in the area of retail store and restaurant operations. Toward the end of the '80s, I became more involved with auditing and point-of-sale (POS)," he told Convenience Store News. "With the increase in POS complexity, the need for a support help desk became apparent, so I created one. This is the point where I made the move from operations to information technology, and I have been in this area of the business ever since."

Xenos worked for 15 years at Pilot before moving to Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores, based in Oklahoma City, Okla., taking the job as director of store technology. Today, he is the vice president of technology and CIO for the truck stop and convenience store chain, overseeing a staff of 120 employees, including the help desk. He is also this year's recipient of the CSNews Top Tech Executive Award.

"Once you get to the C-level, it's more about managing the business side of IT, including costs, staffing, budgeting and project management," he explained. Xenos is a liaison between the IT staff and the business management staff, and finds his operational business background helps him in this role. "When we start a project, I can understand what the operations side would want or maybe even need," he said.

Looking back, not only was technology a new arena for Xenos in the 1980s, but also for the industry. However, the evolution of technology has made it an indispensible part of the c-store industry, and it continues to grow more diverse by the minute.

"It's not that the technology isn't out there, but it's about deciding which you should choose to integrate, support and maintain," he noted. "It brings a lot to the table, but it complicates a lot as well, and today it's really all consumer driven. It's not what technology you use, but how you use the technology."

Consumers are demanding more, whether it is Wi-Fi, automated pumps, couponing or mobile applications (apps), and the biggest challenge is keeping up with it all, said Xenos, explaining that mobile has really "thrown a curveball" into things in the last 18 to 24 months, and is putting more control into the hands of consumers.

"People now expect to have their phone offer coupons, tell them where they can go to eat and where the best place is to park," he said. "They can go into a large electronics retail store and scan a television's 3D bar code to see how much other retailers are selling it for, get all the details of the product and shop for a better deal. It's very competitive."

Love's introduced a mobile app last summer for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smartphones, offering customers real-time access to company locations, fuel prices, store amenities, food offers and special promotions. Customers can also check their rewards points and credits. In December, the company added a roadside assistance piece for drivers to contact the chain's dispatch service if they encounter problems while on the road.

TECH AT LOVE'S

Technology touches a variety of levels within a company, and every department from accounting to marketing has different needs. To streamline the project management side of the IT department and keep everyone on the same page when it comes to technology projects and implementation, Xenos created business-aligned technology managers for each department at Love's. These managers serve as the go-between for their department and IT.

"We have a never-ending list of business and technology projects, so we decided to build an alignment team that can work with each department to work out the priorities for technology. They listen to what the department wants and needs, and come up with solutions," Xenos said. This could include putting together a plan with vendor suggestions to present to IT, or coordinating the actual implementation of a technology and training staff.

Currently, Love's is doing a lot of work around payments, specifically the rollout of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags at the pump, which allow for the processing of fuel transactions without a debit or credit card. Fleet truck drivers can put the RFID tag in the window of their truck and as they drive into the fuel lane, the antenna recognizes the tag for payment.

Additionally, with more technology comes more data, and this means an opportunity for chains to delve deeper into customer behavior — from who has the company's app to what products are purchased. Love's is using WebFOCUS as part of its business intelligence efforts, as well as Cognos and Micro Strategies.

FUTURE OUTLOOK

With the rapid adoption of mobile technology, many retailers are changing the way they operate on a daily basis, and that includes employee use of iPhones and iPads. This is true for Love's, as Xenos noted that the company has been "pushing out our reports differently because they need to work on an iPad and iPhone. In the future, the industry will see a lot more happening on the mobile side."

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